Thursday, May 27, 2010


      Photo by Brynjar Gauti

Travel is wonderful -- until train workers go on strike, the cab doesn't come, your passport gets stolen, or -  as happened this spring -  a volcano erupts and cancels flights in airports all over Europe. 

A morning computer check on our last day in Italy showed an email from our airline carrier telling us that one or more of our bookings had been "disrupted." That's airline parlance for "your flight has been cancelled." 

We were not alone - the Icelandic volcano that had snarled airline traffic all over Europe earlier in the spring, had erupted again and cancelled all flights out of Pisa. Given the vagaries of the volcano, we decided to take a train to Paris, where two days later we were picking up our transatlantic flight home after four months in Europe.

Train reservations were hard to come by, but we finally booked two tickets on the night train from Florence to Paris. The "night train" sounds exotic and for many  immediately brings to mind the elegant train compartment in Alfred Hitchcock's classic movie North By Northwest, where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint passionately embraced. Most sleeper compartments, however, are less romantic and, like ours, have six narrow little beds that fold down from the walls. If all goes well, your fellow traveling companions don't snore (ours didn't) and you sleep pleasantly through the twelve-hour journey and wake up refreshed in the City of Light.

This unexpected travel delay had an upside - a beautiful Sunday in Pisa and the chance to have one more delicious Italian meal. As we walked the back streets of Pisa, our attention was caught by a small hand-written sign advertising typical Tuscan dishes.  It led us to Toscana in Tavola, a just-opened restaurant so small it was like stepping into a family dining room. Inside we met the family - Roberto, Simona and Andrea. They've been in the food business for almost 40 years and grow and produce almost all of the food they serve. We put ourselves in Chef Roberto's hands and were served delicious prosciutto, salami, cheeses, focaccia, wine, Tuscan Soup, and tender, quickly-sauteed pork,  After lunch, the family sat down to enjoy a glass of wine with us.  We exchanged stories and left promising to see them next year.

That night on the train, we reminisced about our first sleeper train on a trip from Paris to Madrid. New to France, we did not know that tickets had to be validated in a machine. Because of this violation, the ticket taker - who arrived In the middle of the night - wanted us to pay a fine or leave the train at the next stop. We refused and were backed up by our fellow travelers, who rose from their beds to defend us. "They are foreigners and don't know the system," they protested. When the ticket taker finally relented and stamped our tickets, we all cheered in a spirit of French/American solidarity.

This time, the train trip went smoothly. We got to Paris in the morning, spent the day and night with friends and woke on Tuesday to find our flight home was "on time."  A short walk across a lovely Paris park brought us to the RER, where we boarded the train for the one-hour trip to the airport.  

Two stations later, however, the train came to a halt and an announcement told us that an accident had stopped all trains to the airport for an undetermined amount of time. "Undetermined" can be anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. We got off the train and tried to find an alternative train, a taxi and then a bus - all to no avail. For part of this time, we had in tow a young couple from Texas, with Texan-sized baggage. At some point, when we took the stairs, they were obliged to take an elevator and we never saw them again.  We hope they made their flight.

We were pretty resigned to missing our flight when the RER began running again. We got back on and arrived at the airport with about 40 minutes to spare. 

It was a nice flight on a new plane that was not at all crowded.  The food was okay and the movies were good and when we arrived at our destination, the first bag to appear on the luggage carousel was ours.  Unfortunately, the last bag to arrive on the luggage carousel was also ours.  

In the end, though, things went pretty well. There were a few change of plans and we spent a bit more money. On the other hand, we made some new friends, ate some great food, had some adventures and still got home on time.  

The moral is that when you travel, it pays to leave extra time and to heed writer Susan Heller's advice:  "when preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money."

For more photos, click here.


Toscana in Tavola
via Tavoleria, 8
Pisa, Italy
Tel: 392 3435098

Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The Leaning Tower of Pisa, the medieval town wall and the cathedral with its oval Byzantine dome are perfectly framed in my office window. In spite of this priceless view, it's sometimes impossible to stay inside and work, especially on days when the sky is a clear blue and the Tuscan sun is warm and inviting.  

The streets of Pisa are alive with activity.  Everyone is outside, walking, shopping and, of course, talking, talking, talking.  Around every corner there is something to see: a medieval tower house illuminated by the sun; a cafe terrace where two elegant women sip - in a nod to summer - a tall frothy drink adorned with strawberries; tourists whose faces light up with amazement at their first sight of the Leaning Tower; African street vendors hawking their wares of lighters, tissues, beaded jewelry and fake Armani watches.

A Pisan friend, who is very pessimistic - as are many Italians - about the future of Italy, tells me that I have created and written about a Pisa che non c'è.  It's a charming Pisa, he says, but one that does not exist. "Where is your Pisa?", he asks.  "I don't see it."  

What he sees are young people who can't get jobs; public services in disarray; cities in decline; an apathetic, discouraged electorate and a self-serving government. Could it be that my Pisa is a myth made of smoke and mirrors and good camera angles?

I feel at home in Italy, in this land that my ancestors left more than a hundred years ago. After my friend's comments, however, I began to wonder if it is possible for a visitor - even one who spends two months a year in Italy - to really know the country. I may understand Italy's problems, but I don't really suffer the consequences. I read the Italian newspapers; shake my head at the price of gas (about eight dollars a gallon); lament that the garbage has not been picked up or that some ancient stone streets in Pisa have been blacktopped over to save money on maintenance -  and then I get on the plane and go home.    

Nonetheless the Pisa that I write about and photograph does exist and it's very real. There are the beautiful medieval buildings; the back streets that seem always to be deserted except for the wheeling swallows; the friendly, outgoing people; the markets; the thousands of students who give this old town a youthful feel; the wonderful food; the nearby beaches; the Monti Pisani - the hills behind the town that in springtime are awash with wild orchids and tender wild asparagus perfect for a risotto to be shared with good friends; and the beautiful cathedral complex with its improbable tower which, no matter how many times you see it, continues to amaze. 

There are things that are wrong here, but someone else will have to write about them. I plan to continue to concentrate on the wonderful Pisa that is.

For more photos of that Pisa, click here.  


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor